Portland tries to allay concerns about social services consolidation

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Mayor Kate Snyder said city staff is conducting outreach to abutters and neighbors after concerns were raised about the recent announcement that Portland plans to consolidate social services in an Arts District office building.

Snyder also said there will be a May 5 Health and Human Services and Public Safety Committee meeting to further discuss the proposal to move services to 39 Forest Ave. A forum was also held April 23 with members of the Portland Downtown advocacy group.  

Snyder previously said she would meet with City Manager Jon Jennings and Councilor Belinda Ray – who represents the Forest Avenue district – to create a plan for better public outreach as the proposal moves towards the City Council, which must approve the lease agreement.

Portland officials want to consolidate the city’s Health and Human Services Department in the two-story building, center, at 39 Forest Ave. in the city’s Arts District. The proposal has been criticized by some neighbors, including Maine College of Art, which has plans to develop a residence hall next door at 45 Forest Ave., left, and Portland Stage Co., which is in the building at 25 Forest Ave., right. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)

The May 5 meeting will be another opportunity for councilors to ask questions and get information.

The plan to consolidate the city’s Needle Exchange Program on India Street, the Public Health Division on Lancaster Street, and other administrative locations at 39 Forest Ave. was only revealed in early April. The city’s lease on Lancaster Street expires on July 1.

The fast-tracked nature of the process has concerned some abutters, including Portland Stage Company and the Maine College of Art, because they received no notice before reports of the consolidation plan appeared in the press.

MECA is planning a 180-bed residence hall directly next door at 45 Forest Ave., and college administrators as well as the project developer, Redfern LLC, expressed concern about the process and safety for students who will live in the dorm.

To be able to move out of Lancaster Street by July 1, the city would have to expedite the negotiation process and begin renovations at 39 Forest Ave. soon. Critics said that doesn’t leave enough time for the public to adequately discuss the plan.

The city began looking at the former MaineHealth building in February 2020, but those discussions paused because of the coronavirus pandemic. The property owners reached out to the city again early this year to say the building was still available.

If approved, the first floor of 39 Forest Ave. would house the Needle Exchange Program, and be fully utilized by November. The second floor would house the Public Health Division and would have security and a metal detector.

City officials have said the current spaces on Lancaster and India streets have exhausted their potential, and the Forest Avenue building offers more potential for growth, as well as a lower rental cost per square foot.

The current rent for India and Lancaster streets is just over $280,000 per year, while the rent at 39 Forest Ave. would be $277,500.